Water, Water, Not Everywhere — Part III

by Gary Mount

I can’t believe it! I have written about water twice before — in 1999, and 2001. I related my efforts to drill wells on our farms at Terhune Orchards. Since then, I have expanded our irrigation system, drilling some more and burying miles of plastic pipe around and between our farms.

I have always been interested in water supply issues. I grew up on a farm in West Windsor that bordered the Delaware and Raritan canal, which now supplies water for about a third of New Jersey’s residents. When Pam and I were in the Peace Corps in 1967, one of the projects that I worked on was a water supply system for the small island where we were stationed. (I am pleased to report that now, 45 years later, it is not only still working, but the islanders have doubled its size!) In the 1980’s, I was a New Jersey water commissioner with responsibility for the D& R Canal that I knew so well from my childhood.

Water availability for agriculture is a huge issue, not just for me, but for the state, the country and the world. In comparison with the rest of the world, we have a lot of water in the U.S. and New Jersey has a better supply than most states. But not all of New Jersey — in some areas, such as ours, the water supply is tough. Since 1999, most of my attempts to find water have been failures. We would find 2-3 gallons of water per minute — maybe enough for a house supply, but not worthwhile for farming. I have been lucky to find one good well at our pick-your-own orchard on Van Kirk Road and a not so good, but usable one at our other farm on that road where we grow wine grapes and organic vegetables. I’ve tried the help of dowsers (two) who use wires or forked branches held in their hands, a hydro-geologist who used maps of sub surface rock formations to advise us where to drill, and another geologist who measured electrical interference patterns below the soil surface all across the farm.

These experiences have led me to a few conclusions. One is that no one really knows where to find water in this area. There are no aquifers below the surface. Water is found only in fracture zones in otherwise solid rock. A second thought is that if you do find a good amount of water, you better go right out and buy a lottery ticket, because it is your lucky day! And finally, if your wife realizes how much you are spending on all those dry holes in the ground ($15,000+ each), some serious discussions are going to take place about how many more you can drill!

This summer is proving disastrously dry for many farms in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest. In New Jersey, conditions were very dry in June and the first half of July. Luckily for us, the work I had done in drilling wells and burying distribution lines paid off — we had water available for our crops. It is, however, a lot of work to get everything watered. I also have to coordinate my use of water for the fruit and sweet corn with Emiliano Martinez, our long time employee who grows most of the other vegetables. Between us, we keep the water flowing day and night. It’s a process that involves moving a lot of equipment and we get pretty tired. When we got one inch of rain on July 20, it was a blessing. Farmers call that a “million dollar rain.”

I have worked with the federal agency called the Natural Resource Conservation Service to develop our irrigation system. The agency has helped me be a better steward of our water resource while still providing enough water for great crops. One neat technique I’ve learned to use is soil moisture monitoring. At some 26 different crop areas, we have buried moisture sensors. Usually we place one shallow sensor and one deep one next to each other. Every day or two, one of our employees goes around the farm with a meter and we put the resulting reading on a chart. This helps me avoid under or over watering.

I no longer fear having to watch, as in 1998, when some of my crops died for lack of water. I am thinking of drilling one more well to provide a better supply to one of our farms. If we find water, I’m buying a lottery ticket.